Archive for the ‘Fractal Weirdness’ Category

Paranoia from the PBA President

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Over lunch today, the head of one of the NYPD’s powerful police unions* emailed a shrill “open letter” to the press, blaming the “armchair rhetoric” of columnists and pundits for the worsening relations between the police and the communities they serve.  Here’s the email:

To all arm-chair judges:

If you have never struggled with someone who is resisting arrest or who pulled a gun or knife on you when you approached them for breaking a law, then you are not qualified to judge the actions of police officers putting themselves in harm’s way for the public good.

It is mystifying to all police officers to see pundits and editorial writers whose only expertise is writing fast-breaking, personal opinion, and who have never faced the dangers that police officers routinely do, come to instant conclusions that an officer’s actions were wrong based upon nothing but a silent video. That is irresponsible, unjust and un-American. Worse than that, your uninformed rhetoric is inflammatory and only serves to worsen police/community relations.

In the unfortunate case of former tennis pro, James Blake, — who was clearly but mistakenly identified by a complainant — there certainly can be mitigating circumstances which caused the officer to handle the situation in the manner he did. Do they exist? Frankly, no one will know for sure until there is a full and complete investigation. That is why no one should ever jump to an uninformed conclusion based upon a few seconds of video. Let all of the facts lead where they will, but police officers have earned the benefit of the doubt because of the dangers we routinely face.

The men and women of the NYPD are once again disheartened to read another the knee-jerk reaction from ivory tower pundits who enjoy the safety provided by our police department without understanding the very real risks that we take to provide that safety. Due process is the American way of obtaining justice, not summary professional execution called for by editorial writers.


Patrick J. Lynch

Here’s where that’s coming from:

  1. Last week, retired tennis player James Blake was at the entrance to the (very nice) Grand Hyatt hotel in midtown Manhattan, waiting for a car to take him to an appearance at the U.S. Open. Out of the blue, an armed man in a white t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers attacked him, shoved him against the wall, then twist-slammed his body face-down onto the pavement.
  2. The armed attacker was a police officer, James Frascatore, who mistakenly thought Blake was a suspect in a credit card fraud. Frascatore did not identify himself as a police officer until after Blake was in handcuffs.
  3. Video of the attack surfaced (seen here). Frascatore was widely criticized for excessive and unnecessary force, word spread that he’s had a long record of overdoing it.
  4. To stem the public-relations disaster, Frascatore was placed on desk duty while an investigation could proceed.
  5. The public-relations disaster only got worse, with Blake calling for Frascatore to be fired, and many thought leaders joining in that wish.
  6. Lynch is now responding to all that, saying that it’s too soon to judge Frascatore, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions until we know the whole story, he deserves the benefit of the doubt because police officers have a dangerous job, the people calling for him to be fired enjoy the benefits of policing without the wisdom that comes from understanding what police officers risk, and that Frascatore deserves due process before being tarred as an offender.

A lot of people are going to knee-jerk dismiss Lynch’s email as a load of horseshit at best, and at worst a dangerous defense of a dangerous man that exemplifies the corruption of police unions and the thin blue line’s blind eye to evil within its ranks.

A lot of people are going to knee-jerk cheer Lynch’s email as a necessary breath of fresh air, a much-needed skewering of those who god knows why insist on attacking the freaking good guys, who give aid to the enemy by fanning the flames of anti-cop sentiment, those namby-pamby assholes who put good cops’ lives in danger to further their petty political points.

I’ll try not to be too knee-jerk here, but Lynch is wrong. He’s hypocritical, foolish, and wrong.


Look, nobody doubts that the police have a risky job. It’s nowhere near as risky as they sometimes think, with fewer cops being shot these days — despite there being far, far more cops and criminals on the streets — than there were more than half a century ago. (Sorry, that link was from 2013. They’re even safer now.) But the fact remains that police officers do sometimes, occasionally, rarely, get killed on the job. Even by people suspected of nonviolent crimes like credit card fraud.

You think I’m going to say that’s irrelevant. But it’s not. I’ll get to that in a moment.

But holy cow, the hypocrisy. Once again the refrain that “we can’t judge this officer until all the facts are in.” “Don’t rush to judgment.” “Don’t jump to conclusions based only on the evidence you’ve seen.” “Don’t ruin his reputation and career before he’s had the due process of a full and fair investigation.”

Oh, please.

When police officers start living by those maxims, maybe then they can expect to benefit from them. Rushing to judgment, jumping to conclusions based on limited evidence, is what cops do. It’s what they’re trained to do. It’s their blasted job description. And they immediately do their best to destroy the lives of those they’ve arrested, before any evidence is in, before any due process has even begun, by hauling their victims through perp-walks and holding press conferences specifically designed to condemn people who haven’t even been arraigned yet, much less been convicted.

Whenever a police representative makes any of these claims, you have my permission to vomit on their shoes in disgust.

That’s the hypocrisy, and it’s obvious. What’s the foolishness?

Lynch is foolish to attack the punditry in this way. The opinion writers and journalists of America have been the best friend of the police since forever. Including the lefty anti-establishment types who flocked to journalism after Watergate. Yes, them too. They’re the ones who made the police into heroes. It sure wasn’t the people on the street who actually interacted with cops and batons and TPF goons, and it certainly wasn’t the people safe in their offices and houses and dorm rooms whose only encounter with the police was a speeding ticket. It’s been the storytellers — the journalists, the screenwriters, the comic-book artists — who’ve reliably instilled the ideal of the noble police officer.

The exceptions used to be exceedingly rare, and only in reaction to exceedingly awful conduct.

What would a wise police establishment do? A wise establishment would co-opt these writers eagerly, and make sure that these rare exceptions were known to be exceptions, were disavowed as unpolicemanlike, and that real police officers neither behave that way nor tolerate those who do.

What the unions have consistently done, however, is to double down each time it happens. With every case of police brutality, the police back the wrongdoer. And each time they do that, the police themselves, turn the outcry, bit by bit, against the police themselves. By identifying with the wrongdoers, the police have gradually become the wrongdoer in many eyes. Some say the anti-police demonstrations in Ferguson last year marked a tipping point, and that anti-cop sentiment is becoming systemic. But they said that after Amadou Diallo, after Abner Louima, after Rodney King, a generation ago, and it never really snowballed. But if we are at a tipping point or near one, how much wiser to stop it by co-opting the opinion makers? Not antagonizing them and proving to them that everything they suspected and feared is in fact true.


Video is not the policeman’s friend, necessarily. It’s easy enough to edit out the bits that show the threat a police officer was reacting to, to make his reaction look senseless and out of the blue. There are plenty of videos making the rounds that do just that. It’s unfair when that’s all we see, and yes when we jump to conclusions based on such videos we jump to the wrong conclusions. But the solution to that is not the same old doubling down, locking arms, and spouting the same mindless defense of wrongdoing and hypocrisy. That only breeds more skepticism and cynicism. The correct thing to do is provide the rest of the facts, so the public knows not only what’s what, but also that someone tried to manipulate them. People don’t like that. You can do this without undermining an officer’s legal defense. He doesn’t have to say a word on camera. That’s what you union mouthpieces are for, right?

Video is also not always the policeman’s friend when viewed by an untrained eye. You officers on the job right now, how many videos have you seen of a justified shooting, where it all happened too fast or at the wrong angle for the camera to pick up on the gun? Happens all the time. Joe Public sees a video of a cop shooting an unarmed man for no reason. But if you defend the bad shootings along with the proper ones, how is he to know?


As Radley Balko recently wrote, “Once again: There is no ‘war on cops.’ And those who claim otherwise are playing a dangerous game.


So what about the danger, then?

Police training and experience can be pretty dysfunctional. In fact, it’s amazingly similar to the socialization and experience that trains street thugs to behave the way they do.

You take a kid being raised in the inner city by a young, uneducated, single mom. Surround him with those who would hurt him or take advantage of him. He learns not to trust the people around him to have his best interests at heart. When someone tries to make him do something, the best response may well be to deny that person any authority over him, to fight back. The world is a dangerous place, in which he must assert himself forcefully if he is to survive. The other guy doesn’t count. All that counts is getting home okay, and if he can make a little money all the better. [For more on that, read this (or listen to the authors’ Freakonomics podcast or this unrelated Ted talk), or pick up any recent textbook on delinquency.]

In the Academy, police are trained that they are surrounded by those who would hurt them or take advantage of them. On the street, they deal almost exclusively with the violent, the broken, the unpredictable. They very rarely get asked directions by kids out of a Norman Rockwell painting. They learn to assert their authority immediately and forcefully. Otherwise a perp might fight back, and they might get hurt. The perp doesn’t count. All that counts is getting home okay, and if the officer can make a little overtime along the way, all the better.

Dysfunctional? You bet.

But that explains why Frascatore did what he did.

You or I or James Blake can look at the arrest of someone like, say, James Blake, and see a shocking unnecessary use of force. We wonder aloud “why didn’t he just show his badge, explain that Blake was suspected of a crime, and make the arrest peacefully, and only elevate the force used if — and to the extent that — the other guy first made it necessary?” (What, you don’t say sentences like that aloud?)

The dysfunction of a police officer’s training and experience explains why you or I might think that, but it would never even occur to an officer.

His automatic, learned behavior is to attack the suspect with overwhelming force and subdue him above all else. This may be perfectly rational when dealing with a violent or crazed thug. But when dealing with a perplexed honest citizen, the citizen’s confusion gets misinterpreted as resistance, and the officer’s reaction just gets worse.

This dysfunction is what Lynch is trying to defend when he accuses the punditry of ill-informed armchair quarterbacking. If they only knew the realities, they’d understand why this was no big deal, why this was understandable and indeed proper arrest behavior. (Hypocrisy, again. Somehow the police themselves have been granted a dispensation not to have to understand the behavior of those they are arresting.)

The solution, of course, is to think. To take a second and decide whether this person needs to be jumped with shouts of authority and a gun in his ear, or whether a discreet arm on the shoulder and a word in the ear might suffice. To take a second to figure out whether this well-dressed man at a swanky hotel is resisting your authoritah (do people still quote Cartman?) or whether he is in fact frightened and confused by an apparent armed assault.

It seems to work with violent anti-authoritarian inmates (see the above-linked study). Who knows, it might work with cops, too.

But what won’t work is more of the same knee-jerk hypocrisy and paranoia from the PBA.


*The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents uniformed patrol officers. There’s a different union for uniformed sergeants, another one for detectives, and yet another one for lieutenants.

A Modest Proposal

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Yesterday, the New York Senate voted to pass “Brittany’s Law,” to create a new public registry of offenders. Think “sex offender” registry, only for anyone convicted of any violent felony. People with a conviction in their past would have to register for ten years or more (under penalty of another felony conviction). Local law enforcement would be notified of who these people are and where they’re living (makes it easier to harass and arrest them and put them back in jail again). If there’s a fear of re-offense (evidenced by such things as being out on parole, or whether the original violent felony involved violence), then the public could be notified with their photo, details of what they did, where they live now, and more.

Why? Because, you know people who were once convicted of a violent crime? Sometimes they commit another one later! Gasp! Think of the children! The public must be informed and protected, so we can protect our children and our neighborhoods and our workplaces from all those people, some of whom might commit another violent crime later perhaps! Who cares if it had just been a domestic dispute, or they’d shouted “fire” in a crowded theater, or they’d defended themselves in a fight by kicking while wearing shoes, or they moved here from another state and brought their gun with them? (All potential violent felonies in NY.) We need to be protected from all violent felons, if the law’s going to protect us from rapists and murderers and terrorists! That’s what this law’s trying to do: protect us.

But some people complain that this is a bad thing.

Some folks say it punishes people all over again, after they’ve already served their time. Some folks say it makes it harder for these people to reintegrate into society, find a place to live, and get a job. Some folks say this only increases the chances that these people will return to crime.

Some people object on the grounds that any law named after a victim is de facto overbroad, unjust, and a nightmare waiting to happen.

Other people, however, point out that some violent criminals do commit subsequent crimes after they’ve done their time. They can pose a threat. We can’t just rely on criminal law to deal with it, because that only punishes people after they’ve committed a crime. We want to prevent those crimes from happening in the first place. Honest to god, think of the children!

Well, if you put it that way, it all makes sense! Let’s punish people — not for what they did do, but for what they might do. We don’t want a law that reacts, we want a law that protects.

When you put it that way, though… The problem is, this new law just doesn’t go far enough.


The central premise of this law, and others like it, is that rehabilitation doesn’t work. It’s a nice idea, but in reality rehabilitation’s just a pipe dream.

That’s kinda true. Criminal penalties — whether they be jail, prison, probation or what have you — simply don’t prevent recidivism. The vast majority of people who get arrested will never ever commit another offense, regardless of whether their case is prosecuted or dismissed. Either it was a one-off mistake in an otherwise blameless life, or the mere arrest and arraignment was enough to scare them straight. The few who do go on to reoffend don’t seem to stop. At least, their punishment seems to have little measurable effect on whether they stop or not. (Ignoring drug treatment and mental health treatment, which aren’t technically punishment anyway.)

No, nobody with a halfway-decent understanding of our criminal justice system thinks that punishment rehabilitates anybody. It just doesn’t happen.

It doesn’t deter anything, either. Very few criminals decide not to offend after sober reflection of what the consequences might be. Even fewer violent criminals. (Those people who are deterred are those for whom the mere fact that punishment happens is enough to scare them away from contemplating crime. The possibility of a conviction alone is deterrence enough. The nature of the punishment is irrelevant. More importantly, these are not the people we’re worried about.)

If jail doesn’t rehabilitate, if it doesn’t deter, then what good is it?

It’s great for removal — getting the criminals off the streets so they can’t commit further crimes. Inmates can’t mug people on the street. They don’t kill us. They don’t rape… the rest of us. We’re safe from them.

More than that, we know that it works! Crime is down nationwide — violent crime, too — not merely because of demographic shifts but because in recent decades we’ve been locking people up for longer and longer chunks of their lives, keeping them off the streets. The prison population is soaring despite the drop in crime not because we’re shoving more people into prison, but because once there they’re staying longer. Sure we have more people locked up per capita than anywhere else on Earth, but aren’t we safer? Yes, TV shows and the news make people think crime is astronomically more likely than it really is, but you and I aren’t stupid people swayed by that nonsense — we’re the cognoscenti. We know that crime is down, and locking people up is why.

We’re safe from them… For as long as they’re locked up, anyway.

Most of the time, incarceration is sadly temporary.

Which means we’re not safe. And even Brittany’s law can’t protect us. Not really.

Which is why I have a modest proposal:



Punish all violent felonies by death.

Think about it: Removal is the only thing that works. The whole point of Brittany’s Law is to make removal more permanent — to keep them out of our communities and workplaces long after the justice system was forced to release them from custody. Removal’s what we want. The only way to really get that removal is to… you know… remove those people. For good. For once and for all. And execution’s really the only way to go.

Life sentence, you say? But why go to all the expense of feeding and housing and protecting and providing care for a dirty stinking nasty criminal for the rest of his life? First they hurt their victim, and now they’re going to suck our taxes dry for the rest of their days? Don’t forget, most violent offenders are young men between 17 and 30, with a long life ahead of them. And what’s the point of a life sentence, anyway? If you’re going to take away a man’s liberty permanently, if you’re going to remove him from the world permanently, what’s the point of keeping him alive? Death is more certain, efficient, and (if actually carried out instead of jammed up with decades of appeals) cost-effective.

What about exile, you ask? How historically-minded you are. There once was a time when you could ship off your criminals to another land, with a realistic expectation that they’d never get back. Sadly, in these modern times, there aren’t too many countries out there willing to let us ship boatloads of violent criminals to their shores. Plus how expensive would that be? And then they could always escape and sneak back through our borders like any illegal immigrant, and you just did all that for nothing. No, it’s just not workable in this day and age.

Execution is the only way to make sure these people never commit another crime again.

It’s the only way to be sure.

This isn’t an original idea, of course. For hundreds of years, our legal predecessors punished minor crimes with a fine, and major ones with death. (Jail was where you waited until the sentence was handed down, to make sure you didn’t flee in the meantime.) It only became a problem in England when they started criminalizing too many things and people started being killed for stuff that didn’t seem so major. We only invented prison sentences more recently, in an enlightened attempt to match the severity of the penalty to the severity of the crime, taking away a portion of your life that could be measured with scientific exactitude. And also to give you a chance to ponder your misdeeds and make yourself a better person, so you could come out a valuable contributing member of society once more. But now we know that rehabilitation is hogwash, and figuring out how many years a crime is “worth” only heightens the impermanence of the removal. It defeats the whole purpose! No, let’s go back to the tried-and-true. And if there do happen to be a few crimes that shouldn’t be punished with death, it shouldn’t take much time at all to identify and amend them.

Think about all the tax dollars we’d free up from the prisons. Think, liberals, of all those for-profit prisons we’d put out of business, along with the corruption they breed. Think, conservatives, of how low our crime rate would plummet, once we start keeping the bad guys off the street for good. Think, libertarians, of the smaller government we’d enjoy with far fewer agencies and bureaucracies and social programs and social workers and defense lawyers and the rest of the whole long tail of woe that trails behind each of these losers counterproductive members of society. Think, jurists and lawmakers, of the respect for the law we would instill when any potential lawbreaker has a gas chamber waiting for him. Think, everybody, of the children!

It’s a modest proposal, I know. But seriously, if we’re going to give up on every purpose of punishment but removal, then let’s be serious about it and remove them.



That’s not what you want?

Well, make up your mind. Because it’s exactly what you’re trying to accomplish. Your representatives say so every time they vote for something like this. Obviously it’s what you, their voters, want. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it.

Tell you what: You figure out why my modest proposal is wrong. Then explain in the comments why your Brittany’s law (or what have you) is somehow, nevertheless, right.

Go ahead. Just don’t forget to think of the children.



[Inspired by reading the back-and-forth after this tweet by Scott Greenfield]

Undoing overcriminalization

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

So I saw this opinion piece in USA Today by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, titled “You Are Probably Breaking the Law Right Now: When lawmakers don’t even know how many laws exist, how can citizens be expected to follow them?” It joins a growing tide of public awareness about overcriminalization in the U.S. — especially at the federal level — and that’s a good thing. (It also joins a growing number of pieces that use bird feathers as their lead example of serious stupid crimes ever since my little comic on the topic went mildly viral back in 2012 — and that’s also a good thing.)

What struck me was that this was in USA Today, of all places — arguably the nation’s most accessible newspaper, with the broadest audience. It’s not the paper of snooty elites or masters of the universe — it’s Everyman’s paper. That means the word is starting to get out for real. Once the general population starts hearing about overcriminalization, and more importantly realizing that it can affect them personally — it’s only a matter of time before they start calling their congressmen to do something about it.

The time seems more ripe than ever. The past few years have seen a rapidly growing public awareness of police abuses. Something happened to the police while we weren’t paying attention, and now we’re all starting to see a nation filled with highly militarized police forces, police who see the rest of us as their adversaries rather than their masters, police eager to swipe our assets and make collars for dollars… and a realization that this excessive power is being used against “good guys” just as much as those bad guys nobody cares about. Add some basic familiarity with overcriminalization in this country, and you’re going to get a lot of people worried about militarized SWAT teams taking them down for crimes they didn’t even know they’d committed. (In other words, what’s already been happening for years.)

Awareness is necessary before anything can change, of course. So more articles like this (and podcasts and blog posts and hashtags and…) would be a good thing. Spread the word. And then maybe we’ll be able to make some headway. Maybe over a generation or two we might see some moderation of our criminal laws. Or who knows, maybe even take our foot off the accelerator of police powers a smidge? (It’s happened before, after all.) Maybe these could start to be realistic goals to shoot for!

Those were the initial musings I had when I first saw Reynolds’ piece today. But here endeth the serious part of this post, because my thoughts that immediately followed were just, well… silly.

I started to daydream. I imagined such a public outcry against too much police power, too many crimes on the books, and other abuses of the criminal justice system, that critical mass was reached. The tide turned. Progressive politicians who previously clamored to outlaw everything they didn’t like, now fought to shout loudest against the use of criminal law to punish human beings for mere civil and regulatory ends. Reactionary politicians who had once competed to look “tough on crime” by ratcheting up police powers and punishments, now vied with one another to deflate the excessive might of the State and protect individuals from unlimited government.

Far-fetched, I know. But it got worse.

A president was elected on a platform of total reform. Congress was tasked with completely overhauling the federal criminal code — throwing it all out and starting from scratch, eliminating everything that was duplicative, poorly thought out, vague, and stupid. Eliminating every regulatory crime created by the unelected bureaucrats, and requiring that only elected representatives could criminalize anything. Requiring a mens rea element for every offense. Standardizing the terminology and drafting of criminal statutes. Withholding federal funding from states and municipalities that failed to adopt policing reform grounded on the principle that police are civilians, and all the other civilians are on their same team, and most importantly requiring that there be zero financial incentive whatsoever — either to the officer or to the police department — to engage in any detention or seizure. And so forth and so on.

And the people rejoiced. Things got better.

Silly, right? Well, at least a guy can daydream. Now back to work.

[H/T Walter Olson]

SCOTUS makes a mistake anybody would have made. So it’s okay, right?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

The Fourth Amendment established one of our most important protections against government power: if the police search you or your stuff for evidence, their search must be ‘reasonable’; and if they do get a warrant then it has to be specific, and they’ll need probable cause. In writing, it couldn’t be more straightforward.

In practice, however, its meaning is anything but. Over the years, the courts have dramatically muddied the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Not as badly as the Fifth, perhaps, but badly enough to severely erode the Fourth’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. The courts certainly weren’t trying to undermine the Amendment (well, not most of the time, anyway). It’s been a long series of discrete errors, gradually chipping away at what counts as an “unreasonable” search, and what can be done about it. And so legal types have long complained that the courts have been “eroding” our Fourth Amendment protections.

Sometimes this happens because the legally correct outcome sometimes seems so… wrong. What judge wants to let some vile nasty inhuman threat to society go free, on a mere “technicality?” Very often, this sense of “doing the right thing” in fact leads judges to make errors in law — waving away the protections this one bad guy had, and thereby creating a precedent that erases everyone else’s. It’s the “hard cases make bad law” principle, and it’s very real.

Sometimes this erosion happens because the courts simply don’t understand the law they themselves have created! Even the Supreme Court does this. It happens more often than you might think.

And yesterday, the Supreme court did it again.


The case is Heien v. North Carolina, and in a nutshell the Supremes said this: If a police officer mistakenly thinks something you’re doing is against the law, and if it’s a mistake any reasonable person would have made, then it’s okay if he stops you to investigate. The Court broadened the definition of “reasonable suspicion” so that now an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’ll still be allowed to stop and frisk you. Based on the justices’ own understanding of the law, it’s okay, they say.

Actually, it’s not okay. The Supremes themselves were mistaken about the law.

Was it a “reasonable” mistake?


It looks like, at the heart of this mistake, we’ll find the “Exclusionary Rule.” This is law invented by the courts, specifically for the purpose of enforcing the Fourth Amendment. If you’re charged with a crime, and the police have evidence they unlawfully seized from you, your only protection is the Exclusionary Rule: if the police got evidence by violating your rights, then that evidence cannot be used against you at trial. The officers are not themselves penalized in any way; all we do is take away the evidence that they shouldn’t have had in the first place.

This is a very civilized rule, if you think about it. In any situation, there’s a line the police cannot cross. Every situation is different, and the rules aren’t always clear. If the police themselves might be punished for inadvertently crossing that line, then they’re going to avoid going anywhere near it. Society would lose a lot of evidence that the police could have lawfully obtained. Guilty people whom society really wants to punish will get away with it. That’s bad. A rule meant to deter police conduct is not what we want. Instead, however, the Exclusionary Rule lets police go right up to the line, without fear of repercussion if they mistakenly cross it. All the rule does is take away the evidence they get from crossing the line if that happens. It merely excludes what they shouldn’t have had anyway. The rule has zero deterrent effect on police personally, and only serves as an incentive to collect evidence lawfully if they want to ensure its use at trial. It’s really quite elegant: the lawful evidence is maximized, the unlawful evidence is eliminated. What more could society want?

The problem comes when judges are mistaken about the law. When they say the Exclusionary Rule is all about deterrence. Which is precisely what the Rule isn’t about. They get the whole purpose of the Rule wrong, and then they base the rest of their reasoning off of that wrong premise. And they reach a result that’s not only wrong, but inconsistent, confusing, overcomplicated, and unjust. There’s some satisfaction in the guilty being punished, but in so doing they’ve made things worse for everyone else.

So say the police got a bad warrant, but they didn’t know it was bad. Acting in good faith, they seize evidence the Fourth Amendment absolutely forbids them from having. But they didn’t know it was bad. They sincerely and reasonably thought it was good. There’s no way to deter people against being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. So if you think the Exclusionary Rule is about deterrence, you’ll have to conclude that it’s literally pointless if the police were acting in good faith. And if you’re a court, you carve out an exception to the Fourth Amendment — a “Good Faith” exception –and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It happens all the time, and it happened yesterday.


As one might expect when a court is arguing from a mistaken premise, the Court’s justification was convoluted and strange. In an area where one would expect the law to be fairly current and on point, the Supreme Court had to reach way back to its earliest cases, especially about international-border customs seizures as opposed to Fourth Amendment seizures, to find something to justify itself. You can read the case itself here, and Scotusblog has a typically excellent analysis here.

The legal issue is whether “reasonable suspicion” is still “reasonable” if the police officer is wrong on the law. “Reasonable suspicion” itself is about the police officer’s assessment of the facts on the ground, whether he’s seeing someone casing a bank to rob it, or someone who’s just pacing back and forth in front of it lost in thought. Police officers aren’t mind readers, and so their suspicion can be reasonable even if their conclusion turns out to be wrong. The whole point of “reasonable suspicion” is to allow the police to investigate whether their suspicion is correct.

It’s never been about whether the officer’s understanding of the law was correct. We want to let the officer stop you to investigate whether his assessment of the facts was correct. An officer doesn’t need to stop you to investigate whether his understanding of the law is correct. It doesn’t even make sense to say reasonable suspicion is reasonable if the officer was wrong on the law.

The Court’s ruling essentially broadens the definition of reasonable suspicion so that an officer can be wrong about what your were doing, and whether it was even illegal in the first place, and he’s still allowed to stop and frisk you.

Though it didn’t say so explicitly, the Court was essentially making the same “good faith” mistake all over again. A police officer is mistaken on the law. Not because he didn’t study it carefully, or because he was sloppy — no, it’s an error that any reasonable person would have made. Anyone would have thought you were breaking the law, despite the fact that what you were doing was technically legal. The officer’s mistaken belief wasn’t his fault. It was objectively reasonable. And there’s no way you can deter people from being reasonably mistaken. You just can’t. And so if the Exclusionary Rule is about deterring police conduct, it’s simply pointless to apply it here. So we have to carve out an exception — a “Reasonably Mistaken” exception — and our protections are eroded just a little bit more.

It would be a mistake to argue that the Court was wrong because its reasoning was convoluted and it relied on irrelevant case law, however. That’s not the problem with the decision. It’s only an outcome, a symptom, of the underlying error. Once again, they presumed that the Exclusionary Rule is something it categorically is not. That’s their error. And our cherished Fourth Amendment probably means just a little bit less now, as a result.


So they were mistaken on the law. But it’s a mistake lots of judges, even those on the Supreme Court, have made before. It’s an “objectively reasonable” mistake.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

Drawing the Line

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Everyone knows that drunk drivers cause deadly car accidents. This is because alcohol impairs one’s ability to drive safely. So it is against the law to drive under the influence of alcohol.

Everyone knows that texting while driving causes deadly car accidents. This is because texting distracts your attention from driving safely. So it is against the law to text while driving.

Everyone knows that speeding causes deadly car accidents. This is because going faster than conditions and one’s ability permit make you unsafe. So it is against the law to speed.

And now West Virginia is looking to outlaw driving while wearing Google Glass. Because presumably having the internet in your heads-up display would distract your attention from driving safely.

Of course, these laws are all trying to prevent people from driving unsafely. So why not, instead of a whole jumble of laws dealing with specific causes of unsafe driving (and having to be written to deal with new, unforeseen causes), why not have a single law punishing… you know… unsafe driving?

Because these particular causes of unsafe driving are worse than any other? If you say so. But even then, they could just be grounds for enhanced penalties for violating the basic law. No need for separate laws.

The actual reason is that “unsafe driving” is a very subjective concept. It’s really an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, not readily reduced to formulas. Different people have different abilities, physiologies, training, etc., so one person could drive safely with distractions/speeds/alcohol intake that would make another person a deadly menace. If all you’ve got is a cop who can testify that “this person was driving unsafely because of X Y Z,” when it’s not necessarily so that X Y or Z equal “dangerous, then you’re not going to get a lot of convictions.

And so we draw a line. Forget individual variations — as a matter of law, if you do X, Y or Z while driving, you are automatically a menace, and that’s that. The police officer doesn’t have to make a judgment call about whether you were actually unsafe. All he has to do is determine whether you did X Y or Z.  It’s so much easier to prove that you had crossed the line, than to prove that you were actually being unsafe.

Of course, this is overbroad and unjust. Because where we draw the line is arbitrary. Someone driving 70 is no more dangerous than someone going the limit of 65, but that’s where we drew the line.

Where we draw the line depends. For speeding, it’s sort of a lowest-common-denominator kind of thing: We pick a speed that, for this road, most drivers should be able to manage safely. And by “most drivers” we mean “poor drivers.” Because as a society we’ve decided that we’d rather make it easier to get a license, and we’re willing to accept a certain number of traffic fatalities per year in exchange for letting more people drive. So sure, there are plenty of people who could manage it safely at a higher speed, but they’re going to have to obey the same line drawn for everyone else.

For alcohol, it’s more a lobbying kind of thing: Victims and families of victims of drunk driving are understandably upset that people are committing reckless homicides and being treated like it was just oopsie an accident. So they lobby lawmakers to make driving with any alcohol in your bloodstream a crime. And over the years, the amount of alcohol required gets smaller and smaller, because who wants to lobby for the alternative? Who wants to be the guy pushing to make the law go easier on those killers? And so the arbitrary line keeps ratcheting down because nothing is there to prevent it.

For things like texting, it’s more of a zero-tolerance thing: We can’t ever know which text or other distraction is the one you could do safely or the one that would cause a pileup on I-70. So we just outlaw all of them. (If we were intellectually honest, we’d simply outlaw driving while distracted, which is the actual problem. But that would fill the jails with moms who were yelling at kids, people driving while furious after an argument, girls putting on makeup on the way to work, truckers eating tacos, and the like. And we don’t want to do that, do we?)

It’s not just traffic laws — the law is filled with examples of “bright line” rules. All are arbitrary. Some try to strike a balance, some are purely political, and some are unthinking zero-tolerance rules. But the lines have been drawn. And that’s the important thing.

The important thing is that the line is drawn somewhere. Because it’s not about justice. And it’s not about safety.

It’s about not having to make subjective decisions.

And now you know.

Understanding the law

Friday, March 8th, 2013

A lot of the law is extremely formulaic. True, human intelligence is required to spot issues, devise strategies, and (most importantly) persuade decisionmakers. But in its actual application, the law is often little more than a series of IF-THEN decisions. A computer could be programmed to do it. This is just as true of corporate taxation as of advanced constitutional law. A law student could outline those courses with nothing more than a flowchart and do okay on the exam.

Knowing the formula is important. It’s specialized knowledge that you usually have to go to law school to get. But it’s only knowledge. It’s not understanding.

It’s like baking a cake. If you know the recipe, you can go step by step through the process and get a decent cake on the other side. If you don’t know the recipe, you’re likely to wind up with a big mess. But knowing a recipe that works isn’t the same as knowing why it works. It’s not going to help you if your ingredients suddenly change, or something new is added into the mix, or you have to use an oven with a very different temperature. In that case, if you want to make a cake, you’re going to have to understand the chemistry of what’s going on, the effect that the ingredients and how they are combined and the heat and the time have on the final result.

Knowledge is the what. Understanding is the why.

Most students can demonstrate their knowledge on an exam, and they’re lumped together in the curve. It’s the rare students who demonstrate their understanding who get the outlier As, however.

In fact, there are professors out there who will announce to the class that the final exam is going to cover things that never came up in class. Topics that were never discussed. Issues that aren’t in any of the books. The students will have to say, based on their understanding of why the law is the way it is, what the answer in that unfamiliar area ought to be.

These are awesome professors. If you ever get one, cherish the experience. Because you’ve lucked into someone who teaches the why, as well as the what. And you are going to be so much better equipped to deal with the law as it changes.

The law does change. Whatever field you practice in, the law is going to change during your career. If you know where the law is coming from, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. And more importantly, whichever way it goes, you’ll get why. You’ll understand it better. You’ll be able to use it better, advise your clients better, persuade a court better.

So how does get this understanding?

What you’re looking for is policy. An underlying philosophy or purpose that explains the statutes and cases. What were the lawmakers and judges trying to do? What was the point of view that drove how they did it?

You’d think this would be easy — just look at the legislative record to see all the arguments for and against, the court opinions spelling out in excruciating detail precisely where they were coming from.

But if you try doing that, you’ll soon learn it’s not easy at all. The stated reasons for statutes, regulations and caselaw are inconsistent as hell. They’re all over the map. And what’s more, people are only human. The reasons we give for our actions are rarely the same as our true, unstated motives. We may not even be fully aware ourselves of the actual policies we’re acting on — most of the time because we haven’t reflected enough to actually know what they are, and so they remain unconscious, subliminal. And our brains are wonderfully adept at justifying after the fact.

So it’s a puzzle. The narrators are not telling you the truth. They’re not lying to you, but they’re not telling you the truth. The trick is to pick out the clues from what they say, from the situations they’re reacting to, from the problems they’re trying to solve, and from (most importantly) what they actually do. It takes a fair amount of insight into one’s fellow human beings to solve this puzzle.

And this is what sets apart the merely adequate law professor from the superstar. The adequate professor makes sure you understand what the various disparate laws happen to be. The superstar gives you an insight that explains them all (or most of them, anyway).

Which way would you prefer to learn them all?

Now, there are lots of ways to explain what’s going on. How do you know which theories are best?

As with any other field of study, the simplest theory that explains the most data is best.

So for example, you might have a ton of cases that seem to be all over the place, if you just take the judges at their word. They seem to be espousing a given principle, but their decisions keep pushing the law in a different direction. That tells you that the real reason isn’t the one they’re saying. Maybe it’s emotion. Maybe it’s a desire for a certain outcome no matter what. Maybe it’s just pandering to a perceived public opinion. Maybe it’s just a backroom deal.

And those surface reasons give you a clue to the unspoken philosophy behind them. In a criminal case where the court is performing some impressive legal gymnastics, it could simply be that the desire to punish this guy is more important than any protections the law might have given him. (That’s the opposite of the rule of law, by the way. A good example of saying one thing but doing another.)

You can also watch as repeated reliance on the spoken, but incorrect, principles leads to bizarre outcomes. The exclusionary rule is a good example, where the courts keep saying it’s about deterring the police from violating your rights, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. The rule is intended not to make the police think twice but instead to ensure that violations of your rights don’t get used against you. And you can see how repeated insistence on its deterrent purpose erodes the rule — because in situation after situation the court recognizes that there is no significant deterrent effect, and so says exclusion wouldn’t matter here.

This kind of thing goes on in almost every field of the law.

The trick to understanding is actually formulaic: 1) Look at the facts and the outcome; 2) Look at the stated justifications; 3) Note any disconnects; 4) Apply your own understanding of human nature, various philosophies, history, culture, etc., determine likely explanations for the disconnects; 5) Select the explanation that explains the most data with the least complexity.

Go on, try it!

A PhD in Law?

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Yale Law School has announced that it will now offer a PhD in Law — apparently the first time a doctoral program in law has been offered in the United States. One can only ask “what for?”

Ostensibly, the purpose of a PhD is to advance human knowledge. You get that degree for figuring out something new, and proving it to the satisfaction of people who know what they’re talking about. At the end of the day, humankind gets a little smarter, and you get to call yourself a doctor of philosophy.

Looked at that way, there’s not a whole lot of room for PhD studies in the law. The law is a manmade thing, not something out there to be discovered, and an unholy number of people make it their business to know all of its various ins and outs. In other words, there’s not much “new” to the law to figure out. The exception is for research into how the law is applied, and philosophical attempts to identify the underlying policies that explain why the law is the way it is. This is what legal scholars already do. They don’t need a PhD to do it. Lowly JD candidates do it when they write notes for their law reviews. Scholars do it when they write books and law review articles. Bloggers do it when they’re not bitching about the job market or SEO. Even amateur cartoons have been known to take a stab at it. There’s just not a lot for a PhD to work with here, and it’s already being done elsewhere.

Of course, that’s looking at it the wrong way. In the real world — particularly outside the hard sciences and mathematics — the PhD is just a prerequisite for a career in academia. If you want to be a professor, you’d better get that doctorate. It’s not about advancing human knowledge; it’s about training to be a “scholar,” however your academic field defines it.

Looked at that way, Yale’s decision makes slightly more sense. The Law PhD would just be one more way of proving your bona fides as a scholar, another way to compete for a job as a tenured law professor. There are far more people who’d like to be a law professor than there are available positions, so the competition is insane. The usual “publish or perish” rules apply here as much, if not more so, than anywhere else in academia, so getting enough articles into some law review or other is one requirement (which explains the proliferation of law reviews that few bother to read — the demand is not for the finished product but for the publication service). But that’s just a starting point. To further weed out candidates, law schools require advanced academic degrees. The J.D. is an entry-level vocational degree, nothing more. They want people with an LL.M in the area of law they teach. More and more, they want people with a PhD in (as the Yale announcement says) “economics, history, philosophy, or political science.” These are what the law is about, after all (and what you should be studying in undergrad — not pre-law — if you want to be best prepared for law school). But a Law PhD is probably not being offered just as another way to prove one’s sholarly ability.

The real reason is probably just supply and demand — and not demand from tenure candidates. The demand is from law school administrators, who want more and more ways to weed out those candidates. Because there are more and more people trying to break into law school academia. There are tons of people with LL.Ms and PhDs from other disciplines. But who has a PhD in law? Nobody. If it existed, it would be a great way to tell which candidates have learned how to be academics, which ones are already “one of us.” Yale is providing schools with a way to be more demanding of professorial candidates, and thus make the school’s job easier (while giving them something more to brag about.) Just as readers aren’t who law reviews are for, the PhD candidates aren’t really who this program is for. They’re not the customer, they’re part of the product.

So let’s make the ivory tower a little higher.  Of course, that will only exclude more people who have actually practiced law. But that’s what adjuncts are for.

Better Criminal Lawyering through Smart Risk-Taking

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Judgment is the criminal lawyer’s stock-in-trade. The ability to assess the risks of a situation, and choose the better course of action, is the value that lawyers bring to the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter if they’re defense attorneys negotiating a deal or fighting it out at trial, or if they’re prosecutors deciding whether and what to charge — their value is their judgment. The better the judgment, the better the lawyer.

It’s therefore critical that criminal lawyers have some understanding of how and why people take risks. In advising a client inclined to take a bad risk, the lawyer can’t really change that perception without knowing what’s causing it. And such an understanding also helps one spot one’s own inclinations to error before it’s too late.

This is not common sense. (In fact, common sense is usually the enemy here.) It’s insight. The ability to see how people act, and realize — aha! — why.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are amazingly smart people out there who do that all day. When you find one with real insights about why people take the risks they do, you’re probably gonna want to listen.

That’s why we’re taking a moment to point you to Danny Kahneman (that’s his picture up there).

Who is Danny Kahneman, you ask. You’re not alone. If you’re not an economist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he won the Nobel Prize for basically inventing the field of Behavioral Economics. If you’re not a psychologist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he’s considered “one of the most influential psychologists in history, and certainly the most important psychologist alive today.” If you’re not a foreign-policy wonk, you can be forgiven for not knowing of his significant ideas on the evaluation of risks in wartime. He’s one of the most insightful and relevant people nobody’s ever heard of.

As it happens, a lot of his insights are directly relevant to the practice of criminal law. Trying to decide the likely outcome of that trial? You’re probably (more…)

Not Ready for Prime Time: Brain-Scan Reliability in Question

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Almost from our first post, we’ve written here about developments in brain-scan technology and its applicability to criminal law (see here, here, here and here, for example). So needless to say, the past nine days have been of great interest, as the research behind neuroimaging’s claims has come into hot dispute.

Now, just because our motto is “truth, justice and the scientific method,” that doesn’t make us qualified to assess the merits of the underlying science. Our observations on the actual science wouldn’t be worth the pixels. But fortunately, as with most such disputes, the issue isn’t so much the data as the math — the statistical analysis being used to make sense of the data. And we’re somewhat confident that we can at least report on such issues without getting them too wrong.

So briefly what’s going on is this:

First, lots of neuroimaging papers out there, some very influential, see apparent connections between brain activity at point X and mental state A. But what are the odds your reading of X was just a fluke, and the real spot is somewhere else, over at Z? If you do enough tests, you’re going to see X every now and then just by chance. So you have to figure out what the chances are that X would be a random result, instead of the real thing, and apply that correction to your statistical analysis. As it happens, however, for a long time the neuroimaging folks weren’t using an accurate correction. Instead, they were applying a lax rule-of-thumb that didn’t really apply. It’s since been shown that using the lax math can result in apparent connections to variables that didn’t even exist at the time.

On top of all that, as neuroscientist Daniel Bor mentions in his excellent (and much more detailed) discussion here, there’s reason to suspect that (more…)

“Collars for Dollars” Plus “Occupy Wall Street” Equals What?

Friday, November 18th, 2011

The Facebook post above was posted to Reddit earlier today.  We don’t know if this is an accurate copy or not, the internet being what it is, but it’s close enough to what we’ve heard actual officers say that it is useful to illustrate a couple of points.

First, the whole “Collars for Dollars” mentality we’ve mentioned before. In short, the NYPD is a unionized labor force, whose workers get paid a base salary plus overtime. The base salary is barely sufficient to meet the expense of living in NYC (so many cops choose to live pretty far away from the city, cutting any ties to the communities they police, with attendant consequences). The way for an officer to make some real money is by working overtime.  That lovely, lovely overtime is what pays for their mortgages, their kids’ schools and the occasional night on the town. The way to make overtime is either (1) by making arrests or (2) working a “detail.”

Arrests generate overtime because, at the end of one’s shift, one gets to stay at the precinct for many more hours filling out the reams of attendant paperwork, securing evidence, and helping a prosecutor draft the various complaints. If any of the collars were for felonies, ideally they have been timed so that the resulting grand jury presentation will be held on the cop’s regular day off — RDO for short — which gives the cop 8 hours of overtime even if he only showed up at the DA’s office for half an hour.

Details are out-of-the-ordinary assignments where an event requires extra police to provide security, police not otherwise assigned to a normal duty — police working overtime or on their RDO. Details can range from providing a police escort for a visiting dignitary, to lining the streets for a parade, to dealing with an unruly mob. Details are a great source of overtime.

You see this in the Facebook discussion, which appears to include more than just one NYPD officer. The original poster is on his RDO, and he’s hoping the OWS protesters start acting up so he can get called in to do a double tour and get 15 hours of overtime pay (for getting the chance to hit some protesters). Another jokes that he hopes they don’t start rioting until his shift starts that night, presumably so he can maximize his overtime.

There’s nothing wrong with police officers joking about stuff that, to the rest of us, might sound obscenely offensive. It is often a tough job, often horrific, and black humor is how people of all walks of life deal with such things. The post about pretending to be a protester, shoving people from the inside, shouting invective, and leaving a BB- or paintball- gun behind? That one’s probably a joke (although — and probably because — such things have been known to happen).

But there are other wishes expressed here which, though certainly cathartic, are probably more sincere. The desire to “rock,” or get physically violent with a protester, comes out strong here. Why? Because the protesters are the enemy.

That’s our second point: To the police, it’s “Us against Them,” and (more…)

Because Nino Said Yes, the Chief’s Saying No? To What Extent Does a Justice’s Vote Depend on the Others’ Votes?

Friday, November 11th, 2011

The decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court often have important repercussions around the world, so it’s perhaps not surprising that is studied by lawyers and academics far beyond the Court’s jurisdiction. The results of such studies are often more useful for their insights into how others see us, than for any particular insights into how things work here. That’s because typically, the concepts and even the words we use to describe them just don’t translate all too well. Then again, they’re often misunderstood right here at home — the adjectives “liberal” and “conservative,” for example, have very different meanings depending on whether they’re modifying a political or jurisprudential noun, but try telling that to the average journalist.

Every now and then, however, you get a foreign study that — while still misinterpreting concepts and terms — nevertheless makes a nifty point.

One example was published just a couple of days ago: “Justice Blocks and Predictability of U.S. Supreme Court Votes,” (Nov. 9, 2011) by Spanish academics Roger Guimerà (of the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats in Barcelona) and Marta Sales-Pardo (of the Departament d’Enginyeria Química, Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona). In their paper, Guimerà and Sales-Pardo tried to figure out how any given justice’s votes are affected by the votes of the other justices — not why or how, but whether the vote of Justice X depends on how each of the other justices are voting.

This is something that common wisdom claims happens all the time, such as the trope that Thomas tends to simply follow Scalia’s lead. There is usually some basis for the common wisdom, but it is never entirely accurate (in fact now there’s even talk of Thomas being a thought leader in his own right).

But all these comparisons tend to only compare one justice to another, or maybe blocs that tend to vote together on certain issues. The Supreme Court, however, is made up of nine justices, who all interact with each of the others in different ways. That’s 36 separate relationships. It’s even more complex when you try to figure how any relationship is affected by the other 35 relationships, and so on.

So enter Network Theory.

This is Guimerà and Sales-Pardo’s bailiwick. As NewScientist puts it, they “study complex systems, such as the metabolism of living cells, by considering them as networks of interacting components.” It’s often hard to tell what’s really going on in there, when there are many things interacting in often poorly-understood ways, and when you don’t have all the data you’d like to have. Network theory is a way to put the pieces together and figure out what the relationships probably are. Think of it as a sophisticated form of statistical analysis. It has been applied to hard sciences like biology and physics, to complex entities like the internet and the human brain, and even to the soft sciences of sociology, politics and economics.

Guimerà and Sales-Pardo determined that, if you look at how (more…)

Who Are the Real Victims of Insider Trading?

Thursday, August 18th, 2011


Last week, the prosecution and the defense filed their sentencing memoranda in the Rajaratnam case.  Raj was convicted of 14 counts in all — 9 counts of securities fraud, and 5 conspiracy counts.  So what do the parties think that’s worth?  The feds asked Judge Holwell to sentence Raj in the range of 19.5 to 24.5 years.  The defense didn’t make a specific request, just said it ought to be “well below” what the feds want.

So 20 years, huh?  Wow, he must have been an awful bad guy.  Must have hurt a whole lot of people, right?

After all, a mugger in a dark alley only takes one person’s wallet.  A “white-collar criminal” can steal from thousands of people — and takes not just their wallet, but their life savings!  Right?

Well, hang on.  Did Raj actually steal from anyone?  How many investors did he really harm?  And did any of them really lose enough money to warrant locking someone up till we all have flying cars and jetpacks?

Judging from the feds’ sentencing memo, you bet.  Just look at this, from the introduction:

Raj Rajaratnam’s criminal conduct was brazen, arrogant, harmful, and pervasive.  He corrupted old friends.  He corrupted subordinates.  He corrupted entire markets.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, Rajaratnam operated as a billion-dollar force of deception and corruption on Wall Street.

Wow, that sounds awful.  So the victims are… who again?

But wait, there’s more:

Rajaratnam repeatedly leveraged the power of money and his position as the head of a 7-billion dollar hedge fund to induce friends, employees, and associates to participate in his criminal activities.  Although already rich, Rajaratnam did this to drive up his personal wealth through profitable trading in his hedge fund.  He did it to make sure that investors did not pull their money out of Galleon and to attract new money to his fund.  And he did it because of his egomaniacal drive to triumph over his competitors on Wall Street.

Again, wow.  (The feds sure like their adjectives, don’t they?  Comes off a tad over-the-top, if not insulting to the intelligence.)  So he was trying to increase his wealth, gotcha.  But at whose expense?  Guess we have to read more:

That was what he cared about: money and success.  What he did not care about, at all, was the extensive harm he left in his wake: harm to the capital markets; harm to the average, ordinary investors who played by the rules; harm to the companies whose secret information was misappropriated; and harm to the lives of those he corrupted.

Well, that sounds a little more like it… but again, who was harmed, and how?

Although particular investors on the other side of Rajaratnam’s illegal trades are not easily identifiable, there should be no question that ordinary investors paid the price for Rajaratnam’s crimes and that public companies were harmed by Rajaratnam’s repeated theft of corporate secrets.

Oh for crying out loud.  Are they joking?  Stripped of its demagogical rhetoric, this translates to “We have not identified any actual victims.  But we shouldn’t have to.  It’s obvious that lots of people must have been harmed, even if we don’t know who they were.”

If they don’t know who — or even whether — anyone was actually harmed here, how in blazes do the feds justify asking for 19.5 to 24.5 years of imprisonment?  Here’s how:

[The feds want that much time because they feel it is] proportionate to the historic nature of his crimes.  He is arguably the most egregious violator of the laws against insider trading ever to be caught.  He is the modern face of illegal insider trading.

That’s it.  That’s all.  “Because this is the first time we’ve ever caught someone so red-handed,” and “because this case got so much press.”  Those are the sole reasons why they are looking to put this guy away until he dies of old age.



For the record, we’re predicting (more…)

Even Worse than Eyewitness IDs: The Police Sketch

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Everyone knows that eyewitness identifications are completely reliable — that is, you can count on them to be wrong.  (Everyone does know this, right?)  If the person being identified is a stranger, the chances of a correct I.D. are slim to none.  There are lots of reasons for this.  Eyewitnesses rarely have or take the time to study and memorize a person’s features.  People of one race are awful at identifying people of another race, largely because the parts of the face which differ from person to person are different from race to race — which is why people of another race often “all look alike,” because you’re looking for cues in parts of the face that don’t vary much in that other race.  And people just generally suck at remembering details consistently and accurately.

Still, sometimes an eyewitness description is all you’ve got.  And so what if the eyewitness didn’t see every detail of the face — at least they can describe the parts they did see.  Trained sketch artists take the partial descriptions provided by eyewitnesses, and using sophisticated software they can put together composite sketches that show what the bad guy probably looks like.

We’ve all seen them on the TV news, and various crime dramas would lead one to believe that they’re pretty useful.  And now with IdentiKit software, the details can be adjusted here and there until the witness goes “that’s him!”

But we never hear, after the fact, whether the drawing wound up being all that accurate.  There’s a good reason for this.  The odds of the drawing being accurate are so low, they are below statistical significance.  You’ve probably noticed this yourself, on the rare occasion when a police sketch has later been released with a photo of the culprit — the resemblance even then is usually pretty slim.

A thorough study of composite sketches by Charlie Frowd, of the University of Stirling in Scotland, had participants study a photograph of an individual for a full minute, then describe the face for a trained police sketch artist.  How well could people then recognize the faces in these sketches?  The recognition rate was as low as 3%.

Three percent.

MIT scientists Pawan Sinha, Benjamin Balas, Yuri Ortrovsky and Richard Russell have a great article here that describes problems with composite sketches and ways to make the software better.

The image above was taken from that article.  A trained and experienced IdentiKit officer was given actual photographs of celebrities with distinctly recognizable faces.  He was given all the time in the world — no pressures — and worked directly from the photos themselves instead of having to rely on another person’s descriptions.  And those sketches you see up there are the best the software could do.

Well, maybe the problem is with what the IdentiKit tries to do.  After all, it just works on individual features one at a time.  The eyes, nose, mouth, etc. are worked on in isolation.  Humans don’t look at features in isolation, though.  So there’s another kit out there called EvoFit, that’s more like a photo array that gets to evolve.  The witness is shown 72 random faces.  She picks out the six that most resemble the culprit.  The facial features of those six are then scrambled and recombined to make 72 new pictures.  The witness then picks out, again, the six who most resemble the culprit.  The process is repeated once more to get an image that pretty much matches what the witness saw in her mind.

Now, there are tons of problems with this method.  The suggestivity of showing pictures is pronounced — when witnesses choose photos from an array, they often choose not the one that closest resembles the culprit, but instead pick the one that looks different from the rest — and when a picture has been chosen, that image often replaces the image in the witness’ memory.  She now remembers that face as being the face of her attacker, even though it wasn’t.  This method of scrambling digital faces poses the same problems.

Still, it is more reliable than the IdentiKit.  Instead of a 3% recognition rate, the EvoKit attains a whopping 25% recognition rate.

One in four.


People suck at identifying strangers.  Period.  And yet in-court eyewitness identifications are the nuclear bombs of trial.  The victim points at the defendant and says he’s the one what done it, and you can see the jurors’ minds turning off.  So far as they’re concerned, this trial’s over.  The defense lawyer’s got a lot of work to do, now, to overcome that.

What would be just and fair, of course, would be to allow some evidence of the unreliability of eyewitness identifications in general, and the reasons why IDs can be wrong, so that the defense can tie them to specific testimony by the eyewitness to show that she made the same mistakes.  Not asking the jury to make a logical fallacy that, because it happens a lot in general, it must have happened here as well.  But actually drawing the jury’s attention to specific reasons why this particular testimony is not trustworthy, supported by expert testimony on the unreliability of IDs.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen, though.

Making a Mockery

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

As our first bureau chief, a wise and gifted man, would often say to us:


Last Friday, we blogged about how this Rakofsky fellow had done something very foolish.  After being reported to have done some pretty bad lawyering, and being roundly disparaged by the blawgosphere as a result, he made things worse by shining a spotlight on it all and filing a lawsuit against everyone who’d written about him.  This included the American Bar Association, the Washington Post, and most of the better blawgers out there.  We pointed out how very foolish this was indeed.  And (with tongue firmly planted in cheek), we bemoaned the fact that we’d missed the opportunity to have commented on his behavior the first time, and were so excluded from the honor roll named in his (very badly drafted) complaint.  He could have let it all blow over, worked to rebuild his reputation, and maybe even have been forgiven for a newbie screwup.  But he’d made it worse, screwing up even more.

Well, he’s screwed up again.

He and his lawyer Richard Borzouye (apparently a former member of Rakofsky’s own firm in… Connecticut? Really?) must have worked all weekend long.  Because today, Tuesday, they served an amended complaint on the original 74 defendants… plus six or seven more.  Including us!  Apparently, if you commented on the original foolish complaint, you got added to the new one.

The allegations against us in particular are just dumb.  A pithy commenter online summarized the allegations as that we “have brought the legal profession into disrepute by making fun of” Rakofsky and Borzouye.  There’s more to it than that, however.  According to the amended complaint, our Friday post was written “with malice and hate, in a grossly irresponsible manner,” and made us “actors in the intentional infliction of emotional distress.”  You can’t make this stuff up.  We tried to read the relevant paragraphs out loud to a paralegal, but were laughing too hard.

We couldn’t help but be reminded of this old sketch (which also used to have us in stitches way back in our misspent youth):

“The moon mocks me…” Cracked us up every time.

Anyway, if they thought our Friday post was mocking enough to warrant an amended complaint, we’re sure they’ll think the same about this one.  (And all the other commentary that’s been posted by others today, as well.) So that’s probably going to lead to yet another amended complaint.  And more apparent mockery.  And more complaints.  And so on.  And so on.

Their process server will be pleased.

Feeling Left Out

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

You’ve probably heard, by now, of this Joseph Rakofsky kid.  You know the one — the newly-licensed lawyer who took on a murder trial without any trial experience, who is alleged to have told his investigator to “trick” an eyewitness into denying having seen anything, and whose performance was so bad that the judge had to declare a mistrial.  You know the one — the guy who, after causing that mistrial and getting reprimanded by the judge, went online and bragged about the mistrial like it was some kind of success.  You know the one — the one who quickly became a laughingstock, as soon as the story got picked up by the ABA Journal, the Washington Post, and half the blawgosphere.

Well, you’d think he’d have wised up.  You know, let it all blow over.  Take the time to rebuild his reputation with hard work and diligence.  Memories are short.  Old news gets buried even on the seemingly permanent internet.  It was already happening — it’s only been a month or so since the brouhaha, and he’d already dropped off the radar.  It could have all been forgotten — even perhaps forgiven, if he’d manned up, admitted his error, and moved on.

But no.

Instead of doing the smart thing, this Rakofsky kid demonstrated once again some amazingly poor judgment, and filed a lawsuit.  Against the ABA Journal, the Washington Post, and half the blawgosphere.  In other words, everyone who covered or commented on his doings.


So now, everyone who’s already demonstrated a willingness to write about his conduct, now has yet another thing to write about.  And you’d better believe they’re gonna.  We expect to be sipping our coffee in the morning and chuckling ruefully at responses by some of the numerous defendants.  As they’re some of the most heavily-read blawgs out there, we expect that by this time tomorrow, the name “Rakofsky” will have attained the same tragic/comedic status as “Santorum.”  Yet another shining example of the Streisand Effect.  Well done.

And of course we’re nowhere to be seen on the complaint.  Lucky us, we were on trial and not posting too much, and it blew over pretty fast.  But now being on that complaint is going to be something of a badge of pride.  And we’re not there.  Dammit.  Maybe he’ll amend his complaint to include us now, or maybe one of the defendants can do one of those… uh, civil procedure thingies… where you bring someone else into a case?  Whatever.


For those who want to read the complaint (and we can’t advise it — it’s so badly written it’s actually painful to read) you can find it on Scribd here, under the delightful title “Rakofsky v Internet.”  Sure to become an instant classic, never to be forgotten.


UPDATE: It seems there already is a badge of honor, compliments of Amy Derby.  Link.